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Fashion archive: Shame on you

Few days could be more apt than this one for writing about fashion’s sudden swerve towards sensuality. Sex has ever been one of the most powerful motives in dress but it is fashion, in response to society’s needs, which dictates which side of the display-versus-modesty conflict is dominant at one particular time and, should display be on top, which particular erotic key is to be pressed.

In the case of the clothes for this spring, the key is not, as it has been so often in the past, a matter of revelation, of flashing titillating bits of the anatomy – cleavage, thighs, backbone, muscular chest – but of suggestion by means both subtle and obvious. To do this, fashion employs form-hugging but closely covered frocks, luxurious, glossy fabrics designed to awake the tactility in us all, voluminous, floating swathes of diaphanous material and simple head-turning glitter and glitz. And all except the form-hugging frocks (in most circles at least) apply equally to the male of the species.

Humanity’s compulsion to decorate itself was, psychologists are sure, the prime motivation for clothing. Clothing was an extension of body-painting, tattooing and trophy-wearing. In fact, it is likely that the practical aspects of clothing, like warmth and protection from scratchy undergrowth, were only discovered once man had adopted coverings as trophies to record his prowess, his status and his value as a sexual prize, mate and provider.

Adam Ant, 1981.
Photograph: Richard Young/Rex Features

Modesty entered the scene somewhat later. Obviously it only becomes necessary in a society which values chastity as an insurance of the purity of its bloodlines. So man, and God, invented shame.

In The Psychology of Clothes, Professor J. C. Flugel expressed the display/modesty tension thus: “We are trying to satisfy two contradictory tendencies by means of our clothes – on the one hand as a means of displaying our attractions, and on the other hand, as a means of hiding our shame.”

One thing does perplex Flugel and he names it the Great Masculine Renunciation. He notes that, in all other times and places and among most other species, the female is dowdier than the male. Why, he wonders, has the reverse been true in Europe, America, since the end of the eighteenth century?

Man abandoned his claim to be beautiful, says Flugel. And all because of the French revolution. The wearers of silk, satin, velvet and lace got their heads chopped off therefore, to the ruling, fashion-setting classes throughout Europe, silk, satin, velvet and lace were dangerous things to wear.

So there was safety, economic and political, in uniformity of dress and uniformity of course implied simplification since the poor could not be issued with silk, satin, velvet and lace to keep them from envious and revolutionary thoughts.

But what became of the thwarted urge to display in the dowdy male? Flugel suggests that the energy was rechanneled into work, citing the astonishing burst of creativity, invention, discovery and industrialisation which followed – that exponential curve of human achievement which seems destined to blow us all off the wall chart if the boys’ energy is not switched back from desperate invention to a healthy indulgence in some good old sexual display.

If that is far-fetched, then it must be a coincidence that the generation of young men which is demanding clothes with aggressive erotic content, which is racing its sisters to scavenge granny’s abandoned diamante, which is experimenting with powder, paint and hair mousse, is the generation which has had to come to terms with the new knowledge that work is no longer a right or a duty or a channel for all its energies.

The cynical and the naive may argue that the reborn peacock male is the artefact of a greedy fashion industry, an opportunistic cosmetics industry and a gullible press. The evidence indicates otherwise. Canny fashion designers like the ones whose clothes are illustrated here do not woo an unresponsive market. The hard-headed cosmetics manufacturers are not in the habit of taking steps unsupported by thorough market research. If a product bombs, it disappears from the counters fast yet the men’s perfumery and cosmetics ranges are growing.

The peacock may have been missing from the St Valentine’s Day parliament of fowls for many a long year, but, under the approving eyes of the goddess of nature and Professor Flugel, he will be strutting in to take his place today.

This is an edited extract, read in full

Guardian, 14 February 1985.
Photograph: Guardian

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